In this world memories and bodies are transferable. Mostly anyone can have their memories put into a storage medium that allows the insertion of their consciousness into any suitable vessel. The rich are separated from the poor by the number and quality of bodies they possess and by an electromagnetic cloud that wipes the memory of anyone who passes through it - the rich living above and the poor below.
In that under-city a man wakes up in a ruined room with no memories, a pendant of an unknown woman and a hole in his chest.
There is something elegantly old-school about this production that I cannot help but find delightful. I do not mean that in the animé sense necessarily (Masaaki Yuasa's scope is broader than his medium), no, there is a certain harking back to a time where science fiction writers were a lot less schooled but a lot more inspired. Yuasa lives off ideas and Kaiba definitely has them just like Kemonozume (Yuasa's previous series which I will probably mention occasionally throughout the review) - but are they better used? Hmm, just perhaps. I'll get to the point. I love science fiction. I am not talking Star Trek, Star Wars and so on (not that I have a problem with them) but real, meaty science fiction like Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and so on and so forth. I like my brain to filled with new thought and new concepts until its heavy and bloated like a sponge left in bath water - that is something I like to find in my animé. It is something I found in Kaiba.
Visually, Kaiba excites. Gone are the jagged grotesques of Kemonozume to be replaced by the bubbly grotesques of Kaiba. I joke but I would not say it is exactly pretty as a standard (though Chroniko could almost be described as moé she is so cute). It is, however, certainly soft on the eye and the art style leaves the animators open to draw some incredibly evocative backdrops for the worlds that our lead visits and sees. The visual'greatest strength, however, is that it lends a sense of otherworldliness that conventional art styles and live-action never could. The rivers of memory outside the ship windows, bright and flowing, are drawn in the style of pure imagination, the misshapen worlds, people. It's for these images that animé exists.
Emotion is at the core of Kaiba; if not in concept (its thematic focus is on memories but I'll let the series do the talking on those) it is how it made me feel is at the root of its entertainment. Whether it is in Yuasa's trademark black humour or within the more tender moments of the series, there is a point, a feeling, behind it. While our lead is pretty much an everyman, a blank slate for ourselves, at least in the beginning, the side characters, no matter how inconsequential, are oddly compelling. Regardless of whether it was the stowaways or Chroniko (the girl who is to sell her body to support her family, literally) or another side character - the show quite masterfully evoked sympathy, empathy and regard for these characters with only the scantiest amount of time spent on their characterisation. It is in these characters that many of the series' ideas are born, developed and resolved. These ideas are what make these characters special. They are meaningful.
Sadly the main characters are not quite as worthy. Even as the lead starts to find out who he was and what he is, he never becomes the flawed, compelling lead that are found in Kemonozume or The Tatami Galaxy and thereby never achieves the same gravity that the leads of Yuasa's other series attain. Neiro, the eventual female lead, never really fleshes out to great satisfaction either, though Yuasa's dynamics of romance are as entertaining and realistic as always if, again, a little less well developed. Popo, however, stops the rot and stands out as the most dynamic and interesting of the main characters; his relationships, frailties and strengths stand out as the most developed in the whole show making him the human lynchpin in the main narrative. To say any more would be spoilers.
Another problem is the general layout of the narrative. We start out with a linear non-episodic plot layout which then switches to a thematic based episodic structure which switches back to the main plot for the final group of episodes. Funnily enough, it is the episodic episodes that are perhaps the most enjoyable - they are certainly the funniest and quite often the saddest too - mainly because they adequately deal with ideas they are based around which is not something the main narrative really does. One of my main complaints with Kemonozume was that interesting side thoughts were lost in the wake of the main narrative but here the other extreme is taken and the main narrative is lost a little in developing everything that comes up.
That said, even in fault there is a lot to recommend. The tone, for example, is just right. Like always with Yuasa, the melancholy does not spoil the humour and the humour does not spoil the melancholy. The sad and funny coexist perfectly - cynicism and idealism held in perfect unity. Kaiba is definitely the most serious Yuasa work but that still makes it funnier than a great deal of 'comedies' out there. Secondly, the show's classic style is also surprisingly fitting and a sign of the effort that has gone into the shows production. A lot of the movements are very Disney-esque if you remember the old Goofy or Donald Duck cartoons and it works. Don't ask me why. It just does. Though if I were to hazard a guess I might suggest that its effectiveness is in that it takes it out of the context of time in terms of production. It truly has no context outside of itself.
This was almost five but there are just too many flaws to ignore. More time spent developing the main narrative and stronger characterisation for the leads and this might have been going for one of the shows of the decade but even without that the grace of its aesthetics and its power and emotionality when it does get it right make it an instant recommendation. Certainly one of the most enjoyable viewing experiences I have had this year. — Aiden Foote
Recommended Audience: Older Teens. Sex, nudity and casual violence. None of it is explicit (there's no blood spilled, the sex is not seen directly and the art style does not lend itself very well to titillation, at all) but the adult nature of the themes and content remains.
Version(s) Viewed: Pre-license digital source
Review Status: Full (12/12)
Kaiba © 2008 Madhouse Studios / Masaaki Yuasa
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